On May 20, 1775, 248 years ago today, a group of militia leaders meeting in Mecklenburg County received word of the revolutionary battles at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. They were so outraged that they promptly composed a document condemning the British. The militiamen declared Mecklenburg County free and independent a full year before the Declaration of Independence was signed.
At least, that’s what local lore says.
The date of May 20, 1775, is honored in several places today, from the North Carolina state flag and seal to our license plates and the “First in Freedom” statement. The earliest copy of this declaration, however, is from 1819, when the son of a supposed signatory printed it in a Raleigh newspaper. Once published, it was reprinted throughout the country. Even John Adams and Thomas Jefferson commented on it, noting its resemblance to Jefferson’s own declaration. The similarities are marked enough that were the Mecklenburg document authentic, Jefferson would have had to use it as inspiration.
The likely explanation relates to the Mecklenburg Resolves, which were passed by the same committee 11 days later on May 31, 1775. The Resolves express a similar sentiment but stop short of fully declaring independence from Great Britain. The Resolves were published in a South Carolina newspaper in June 1775, but the original document was lost in a fire about 1800. The printed text was not rediscovered in the newspaper archives until 1847, after the story of the declaration had been told and, to an extent, accepted. Could the declaration simply be the Resolves, misremembered?
Despite this uncertainty, North Carolina claimed its title of “First in Freedom.” Even today, organizations such as the Mecklenburg Historical Society and the Mecklenburg Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution present the declaration as fact. The May 20th Society seeks to prove entirely that a group of militia leaders in Mecklenburg County declared independence from Great Britain more than a year before the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
At 5:30 p.m. Monday, Methodist University professor Patrick O’Neil will speak in the Local and State History Room at the Headquarters Library, 300 Maiden Lane, providing even more detail about the declaration, the Resolves and their impact on North Carolina. Join us to examine the question: Is the Mecklenburg Declaration fact or folklore?
For information about other local and state history programs, call 910-483-7727, Ext. 1365, or view our calendar at www.cumberlandcountync.gov/library.
Kathleen Schrum is a local and state history librarian with the Cumberland County Public Library.